Human-Centered Design: Here's what we learned.

By Priya Iyer

This year, human-centered design has become a big part of our work. Check out some of our tips and insights based on our learnings so far in the post below. 

Why human-centered design?

In September 2015, we won our first innovation challenge, which allowed us to launch a pilot in Chennai, India. Previously, we were operating on the generosity of a few people, and conducting piecemeal work in Hyderabad due to financial insecurity.

As a very early-stage social enterprise, innovation challenge grants are key to survival. Yet, the two questions we get asked most frequently when we apply to innovation challenges are, one, how we'll scale and, two, how we'll become sustainable. Yes, these are incredibly important questions, but in asking them investors often brush over the more immediate question of if a solid model is already in place. The reality is that it takes months of testing and refining (and testing and refining, and testing and refining!) to get there. This is certainly true in places where markets and the government function, and an even more daunting reality in the places we work, where markets and the government have failed people. If you're forced to scale too early, you often end up scaling something that doesn't work well.

We've tried to remain cognizant of this reality in our own work. Since September, we've reached more than 400 women across three slum areas. We then conducted a brief impact survey, and realized many aspects of our model could be improved upon to better meet the needs of the people we serve. This is why we've decided to incorporate the process of human-centered design into our work.

(Many of you may have heard this term, but if you want a better understanding of it, specifically in this context, check out this article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review.)


Here's how we're incorporating human-centered design into our work:

(Each organization might go about the how differently, but this is what has worked for us. I'd encourage organizations to start this process as early on as possible.)

Step 1: Find the right expertise for your team. When we started incorporating HCD into our work, we were familiar with the concepts, but had never gone through the process. Luckily, we found a talented design volunteer through MIT's International Development Innovation Network (IDIN). She uses these principles in her work in the private sector (designing power tools) and in an emerging market context (designing health programs in rural India.) Incorporating her expertise has benefited us tremendously.

Step 2: Train yourself and your team. Initially we used the field guide as a road map to train our team in India. This worked as a temporary solution, but we want to do more. Encouraging people to truly exercise an open mind, and to dig into their curiosity can be challenging, particularly when cultural norms dictate otherwise. Recently, came out with a facilitator's guide. We're going to use this to continue training our team, so they can build off of the concepts they're already using.

Step 3: Define and prioritize your challenges. Although these will change as you begin implementing your work,'s HCD field guide, and +Acumen's course of HCD are good tools to help you get started.

We set out to work through two design challenges:

  1. What information on health clinics do women prioritize when deciding where to seek prenatal care? 
  2. How do we ensure we remain relevant to women? In other words, how do we ensure women engage with our platform on an ongoing basis?

Step 4: Quickly determine how you'll work through these challenges and implement. There are several tools that can help you work through your design challenge(s) not limited to focus groups, games, and card sorts during individual interviews. The resources above get into these in depth.

To address our first design challenge, we developed individual interview guides, and cards with pictures of different aspects of the health clinic such as a female doctor and a sonogram machine. Women ordered the cards based on what they felt was most important, and told us why. This was a highly effective way for us to learn more about their needs.

For the second design challenge, we used a series of general focus groups and in-depth individual interviews. Once we started seeing emerging themes around lack of information on nutrition, lack of information on tablets and vaccines at the clinic, and fears around delivery, we began asking questions that probed more deeply into these areas.

Step 5: Expand your team to continue the process. We sprinted through this process in less than a month. Our learnings were so poignant that we've decided to incorporate this into our everyday to continuously refine our service. Think you'd be good at helping us out with this? Or do you know someone who would be? We're hiring a Design Fellow in Chennai.

(Do you think human-centered design could work for your organization? If yes, we hope this helped! Feel free to share your thoughts or questions:

Kathleen Pointer read and edited drafts of this post.